Risk Management, Public Health and Disease Prevention

In an employment setting, illnesses can quickly spread, and cause an unnecessarily high use of “sick-time” and lost productivity. While new employee orientations often emphasize the importance of proper hygiene, these public health measures are not reinforced frequently. With proper hygiene, there can be a reduction in the spread of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus infections (MRSA) and other contagious illnesses.

Many contagious illnesses are out there, from the common cold and the flu to Whooping Cough and Meningitis. Some of the contagious illness spread through the air or personal touch, some spread through exchange of bodily fluids such as blood and saliva. Whether exchanging a printed document, tool, food, or money, employees touch items on-the-job that may foster the rapid transmittal of bacteria from person to person. Therefore, providing anti-bacterial cleansers, emphasizing frequent hand washing, and proper cold etiquette, such as coughing into an elbow versus a hand, can prevent illnesses that spread among the workforce.

While numerous illnesses exist, a particular emerging problem is that of MRSA. Staph infections—including MRSA—occur most frequently in healthcare environments, placing hospital and dental facility workers across employment roles at special risk. However, the healthcare environments are not the only areas with high risk. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is undertaking research projects to determine the prevalence of MRSA exposure in Agriculture workers, as an emerging occupational public health hazard. Workers in close contact with hogs and other farm animals also have a higher risk for MRSA exposure. In addition, individuals with weakened immune systems (i.e., kidney transplant recipients, HIV-positive persons, individuals with low T-cell numbers, and those receiving chemotherapy) are also particularly susceptible. Transmission is most often by direct skin-to-skin contact and the Centers for Disease Control recommends infected individuals: cover the wound, clean hands, not share personal items and talk to a physician.

With today’s economy, employees with contagious illnesses may fear remaining out of the work environment due to anxiety over possible job loss. With that in mind, in terms of risk management, reinforcement of good hygiene—especially frequent hand washing—is good policy, regardless of the potential for MRSA or other illness exposures.  With people practicing good hygiene and cold etiquette, the spread of contagious illnesses decrease and workers have less sick time and loss of productivity. So, take the time through out the year to remind employees, it is crucial to raise awareness of workplace public health.